Powered by RedCircle
Warning: this is going to get, er, emotional. And we don’t mean for your characters—we mean about us, and about you. If you’re feeling fragile, proceed with caution!
Why are emotions important in writing?
Emotions forms a deeper emotional connection with reader, which means they’re more likely to keep reading.
When you don’t include emotions, your characters can seem bland and detached. Not in a depressed or psychopathic way, just in a yawn-inducing way.
How to add more emotions into your writing
Don’t be afraid of adverbs. The anti-adverb brigade is all about not using phrases like or walking quickly. It’s not there to stop you from using more vivid, emotive language.
So instead of saying that she cried, you could say that she sobbed. Much more vivid words create a more emotive experience for the reader.
We become immune to certain words if they’re overused—which bland words often are. So they create less of a reaction than they should. ‘Nice’ is a prime example.
Nobody really knows what nice means anymore, it could mean things are okay, it could mean something is cool.
But most people interpreted these days to mean blah.
It used to be a compliment to be called nice but now people think it means that you have the personality of a beige wall.
Instead of saying someone is a nice person, you could say how they helped your main character with a particular problem that they had.
Or even better, show them helping your main character with that problem. This adds more depth to their relationship, and means that whatever happens next you reader will be more invested in what happens between them.
Specificity makes a big difference, too. A pet hate of mine is when people say that character is in pain.
There are so many words out there to describe pain that saying someone is in pain doesn’t really mean anything. Particularly in the modern world, when you’ve got people with mental health issues or physical health issues or multiple chronic health issues. The types of pain they experience will be very different depending on what’s wrong with them.
Pain can be mental or physical. And experienced in a wide variety of ways.
So you want to describe it in more depth so that the reader doesn’t just picture it, they feel it, too.
One of the ways I describe my fibromyalgia pain is to say that it feels like poison is coursing through my veins.
Another example I use is that my legs are so heavy they feel like they’re made of lead and it takes all my energy to move them.
Again, this is something that people can see, not just hear or gloss over.
It’s rasy for a reader to imagine that, even if they’ve never experienced it.
When it comes to describing emotional pain, just saying emotional pain is both really boring and isn’t going to create a vivid image in the reader’s head. And if we want to make them really feel what the character is, we need to go into much more depth.
Denise Grover Swank and Richelle Mead do this really well in their books. They really get inside their characters heads, and because of that you are with them for that journey.
You’re feeling happy when they’re happy, you are crying on their crying, you’re laughing when they’re laughing, you’re feeling flirty when they’re feeling flirty. All of that adds up to create a deeper emotional connection between character and reader.
It’s not just about using vivid language, although that is important, it’s also about the depth you go to one describing these things.
So say you’re writing about characters break up, you want to be talking about the emotional pain that character is going through in terms of both physical manifestation of it and what they’re doing but also how they feel.
The questions are going through their head because they’re asking themselves if they’ve done something wrong, wondering how they’re gonna live their life without that person, wondering what the future is going to look like without this person, or maybe something much more immediate like maybe they wanted to throw their lamp at this person’s head.
You want to really get down to the nuts and bolts, which is something that a lot of writers—particularly newbie writers who then spend a fortune on editing because their characters lack depth—don’t do.
Facing your own emotions
If you haven’t dealt with your own emotions, you don’t know what it feels like for your characters. So you’ll find writing emotional scenes—especially draining ones, like when someone is angry or upset—really hard.
Expressive writing allows you to get out all of these pent-up issues that you sometimes don’t even realise you have.
This is when you word vomit onto the page about how you feel about something. Some people might see this as kind of like writing in a diary, but it’s a little more in depth than that.
Rather than writing about what’s happening now, you write about a specific person or event in your life that is caused you some sort of pain or trauma. It could be that that person bullied you when you were at school and because of that you still can’t look in the mirror without hating what you see.
With expressive writing, you write all the deepest darkest most horrible things you think about that person and why they are a shithead on the page.
Finally put voice to all those really mean things you’ve never said and then you bottled up for five, ten, twenty, fifty years.
‘I don’t have emotional issues to deal with’
If you think that, you need to dig deeper.
We all carry more than we think we do, because we suppress it or block it out, so we forget it or don’t notice it’s there. It’s kind of like when you wear glasses for ages, you forget they’re there. But then when you stop wearing them, you notice.
We bottle our emotions up because maybe it was our sister that bullied us. We feel guilty saying she’s a selfish cow who’s better off over the other side of the world.
We may not feel entitled to feel hurt by something someone said when there’s so much else going on in the world, or when other people are going through so-called more or worse pain.
But who are we to judge what’s worthy of feeling pain and what isn’t? It’s not a competition, much as some people want to make it into one.
It’s a scary prospect to unleash all of this, but it’s not about fixing problems. It’s about acknowledging our emotions.
Acknowledging our emotions, not fixing them
Not everything can be fixed, so we bottle up what can’t be.
That’s what leads to pent-up emotions and all sorts of health issues. But tools like expressive writing—when you’re totally honest—can free you from a lot of depressive feelings, anxiety, and even chronic pain.
Without going into too much detail about how it affects chronic pain, I will say that physical and emotional pain are processed in the same part of the brain. That means if you try to suppress one, it often triggers the other.
Like how people with depression, stress, or anxiety often get random aches in their joints and can’t work out why.
Which also makes you more anxious and stressed, because you catastrophise and think something is deathly wrong with you.
When really your mind is just trying to warn you to either slow down, or put the brakes on in the only way it knows how: by manifesting in a physical way.
While I’m by no means an expert in this, the treatment programme that I’ve been working through is based on this approach. Through using its tools, which include expressive writing and general reprogramming of the brain, I’ve gone from barely being able to get out of bed to being able to walk Millie again.
I’m infinitely better physically and emotionally than I was this time last year when I thought my life was pretty much gonna be over.
(And Ellie says it shows.)
Getting to that point took a lot of work, though.
This is why I say it’s really important to work through your emotional issues.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people who tell me they don’t have emotional issues, and then they do one or two expressive writing exercises, whether that’s a Dear X letter, or writing about how a particular life event made them feel, or how they feel even about the way the world is in the moment…and they turned to me at the end, like, ‘Oh my God I had no idea I was carrying all this in my head’.
We suppress a lot of it so we don’t know it’s there until we take the opportunity to tap into our subconscious.
Nobody ever has to know what you wrote, either. It’s liberating to set it on fire (safely!) or close the tab at the end.
Expressive writing is like the free writing we do for our books, but on steroids.
It’s much more self centred, which gives you that chance to look inwards, and be really be honest with yourself.
And I’ll be honest with you, the best writers I have seen, when it comes to emotion, all the ones who are more self aware. That’s because they’ve, in part at least, dealt with those issues.
They know what those emotions feel like, which means they can express them in much more depth.
More importantly, because they’ve come out the other side, or they’re willing to find the other side through these kinds of exercises, they’re not afraid to face them.
We all have something that happened in our lives that we’re not willing to confront. It could be one big event or it could be several smaller ones that add up. It’s often a lot harder when it’s a lot of small ones that add up because you don’t necessarily realise that they’re adding up to work against you.
This was the issue I had, and that means that it can take a lot longer to work through what is causing your depression or anxiety or your chronic pain or all of these things and more. You can’t pinpoint one particular thing and you’ve got a lot of small boxes to unpack rather than one big box.
But unpacking all these things helps you to build this self awareness. Which means writing much more emotive characters that your readers will get far more attached to, compared to someone going through the motions who doesn’t feel much.
Emotionally detached characters
The main thing that really puts me off a book is when a character is emotionally detached.
And I don’t mean that as a character trait, like if someone is a psychopath or deeply depressed
I mean like if someone has a family member or love interest killed off in one chapter, then the next one they’ve completely moved on and they’re doing whatever.
It’s completely unrealistic and that is the level where most people can no longer suspend their disbelief.
Most people can suspend their disbelief if they know that it’s fantasy or superheroes or sci fi, but when it comes to emotions that is what grounds every single drama and there is no such thing as too much emotion in a book as far as I’m concerned because that is war really makes your character more three-dimensional.
Projecting onto your stories
When I was writing What Happens in Paphos, I was still very much grieving for my nan who had passed away about four or five months earlier.
I wanted to get the book out quickly because the sales were doing amazingly and I didn’t want to lose the potential readership if I waited too long.
So instead of thinking I don’t have a story, what am I going to do? I decided to channel what I was going through into my character.
The opening of the book, the main character is talking at her nan’s funeral—which is something I also did—and I leaned into the pain I was feeling to describe this setting and what Hollie was going through.
When it came to the rest of the book, and her dealing with her grief, I took a different stance toward a lot of people do,
I made her a really horrible person.
That’s what grief did to me. People also don’t seem to like covering angry female characters, and so I really wanted to write one. People also don’t seem to realise that depression and anger are very closely related.
It was important to me to lean into the anguish my character was going through. She took her emotional pain out on the people she loved because she didn’t know what else to do.
It felt like her world was imploding around her and she was really panicking, but the more intense that anxiety and depression came the more angry she got on the more stupid fights she picked.
Which is exactly what happens in real life when we don’t know how to process things. People lash out.
Writing positive emotions
Positive emotions mean more if someone has already been through the bad stuff. There’s no good without evil.
It means more because you feel like they’ve earned the happy ending rather than it’s been handed to them on a silver platter.
Nobody likes someone who’s born with a silver spoon in their mouth. You don’t want your character to be someone like that. Unless you’re using them as an example or they’re going to get their comeuppance…
The more pain they go through, the more the reader will feel like your character deserves their happily ever after, regardless of whether you decide to give it to them or not.
And whether or not you do will depend on your genre and also the type of writer you are. Don’t force a happy ending or positive arc just because you feel obligated to. Readers will see right through it and put your book down.
There’s a fine line between fulfilling reader expectations and writing crap just because they want it. It’s why a lot of TV shows like to marry off their characters in the last season to underdeveloped love interests, or matchmake them into rushed relationships, but that’s a rant for another time.
We tend to feel more than one emotion at once, but focus on the strongest one and assume that’s all we feel. Sometimes the strongest one isn’t the one that’s causing the issues.
Like when depression is the root cause, but it manifests as anger.
Or you could have someone who’s very, very anxious, and that manifests as them getting snippy because something isn’t happening the way they want it to. People might think they’re a control freak instead of what’s really going on.
Let’s take the example of someone who appears to be lazy. They might get up at midday, they might go up even later than that. And then they stay up until 2:00 o’clock in the morning talking to friends in Australia.
But that person with a messed up sleeping pattern, wasn’t looking for a job when they’re unemployed, who isn’t writing, isn’t necessarily doing it because they’re lazy.
Sometimes, this is a laziness thing.
This is a very subtle sign of depression that most people don’t pick up on.
The lack of motivation, the feeling of hopelessness, the messed up sleeping pattern, the not bothering to job hunt and avoiding things you actually care about,
These are signs that someone is detaching emotionally from the situation that they are in.
But most people aren’t willing to delve that deep into what another person is feeling, and especially not into what they are feeling.
It’s a really scary thing to do. And depression will fight against you in a multitude of ways. You need to understand why someone you know might not be ready to confront their dmeons, or why maybe you’re not ready to confront your own.
It’s something I went through for a very long time, and it’s difficult for me to talk about so I don’t mention it much.
But I was lost and in a very very dark place for a long time.
I very much regret wasting that year of my life.
People can tell me you don’t need to regret it and blah blah blah but there will always be that question in my head of what could I have done if I had got help sooner? if I had faced my demons sooner? how much further ahead would my career be if I had taken that leap at that time?
It’s hard to shake the ‘what ifs?’
But I wasn’t ready yet. I had to have that moment that pushed me. Like a real life inciting incident—the turning point; the beginning of the story.
It’s a key part of the hero’s journey for a reason. The hero has to be pushed out of their comfort zone to change.
The reason this is effective, regardless of genre, is because the same thing happens in real life.
The people who tend to stagnate and don’t change, tend to be the ones who have had the easiest life. They have their parents who they can fall back on financially, they have a well paid job, they weren’t raised to be ambitious, they were raised accept life as it is, they weren’t bullied at school, they come from a happy family – all these things add up to give you a much more stable life when you grow up.
But small things like being bullied, like your parents arguing a lot, like your parents arguing with you a lot, these add up to create all of these little events and emotions we don’t deal with. That we don’t process. That we bottle up. In the end, they haunt us until we’re finally ready to face them.
Using the right language
Reading literary fiction has been shown to make people more empathetic, because it’s traditionally more internal than nonfiction or genre fiction.
But if you get inside your characters’ heads more, there’s no reason you can’t have the same impact.
In a 2014 study, participants who read a novel about a Muslim American woman were less likely to make assumptions about race than those who read the synopsis. Which shows the power of not just what you’re saying, but how you say it.
Reading is probably going to help you with learning the language to explore your own emotions, too. Because if you don’t have the language to explore it, how can you face it?
A BBC Horizons show a few years ago showed the difference between genders, in children as young as seven. The boys were frustrated in class becuase they didn’t have the langauge to express how they were feeling. The girls did.
They were tasked with being in a gender-netural clssroom. Parents had to give them gender-neutral toys, or toys traditinoally given to kids of the opposite gender. Some kicked off at the start and didn’t like it, but by the end, they were all much happier.
The turning tide
I think the tide is slowly turning towards encouraging people of all genders to deal with their emotions.
And I hope that hearing the journey I’ve been on will inspire some people.
If you need to confront your issues but you’re afraid to, I’d say this: what are you more afraid of? Facing your demons or getting hit by a car tomorrow and never having even tried to achieve anything?
It’s that question that propelled me to work on What Happens in New York. Now, I’m motivated to work through my treatment programme because I want to do more than I currently do.
Because the only person you should compete with is past you.
If you do need help with any of the issues discussed in today’s episode, please, please get it. Talk to your GP, reach out to a counsellor, confide in your friends. Your health is important and we fully endorse getting help with that.